2 Billion Reasons To Yell
Getting Down To Business
There exists a legend that once upon a time in a mythical land called “Post-Vietnam War Australia,” university was free for studentS because the government paid the fees.
The student then used his new credentials to get a high paying job. The higher taxes he would pay to the government as a result would fully pay back what the government had spent on his education fees. Every one was happy, society benefitted, and joy reigned supreme across the land.
What’s this? Students decorating some sort of a banner in the courtyard of Notre Dame University in Fremantle.
The student supervising the banner explained to me that at one o’clock today this banner would be used in a social protest against the labor government's national university funding cuts.
It seemed that prime Minister Kevin Rudd was losing a bloody election battle against the liberal conservatives led by one Tony Abbot. Despite this predicament, if he won the election Rudd was poised to cut over 2 billion dollars from university funding, to pay for reforms that would benefit the few people in society who have no say in the election outcome: primary school children.
Seemed a most logical election strategy.
This lack of funding would (according to the Curtin university student Guild Website) result in courses with low enrollment numbers being cut to save expenses, a decline in course quality, more cheaper online learning, over crowded class rooms and less face to face time with academic staff. The increased debt upon graduation would give students from less fortunate socioeconomic circumstances a disincentive to study.
The student in charge of the banner at Notre Dame explained to me that the liberal party would keep the university funding cuts if they won, and that and that students from all five local universities in Western Australia had put aside past differences, tense rivalries and bitter hatred fuelled tribal feuds to unite against the proposed budget reforms.
This would mean marshalling the yuppies of UWA, the innovators of Curtin, some Catholics from Notre dame, the inner city Edith Cowan crowd and the media hipsters from Murdoch.
They would be brought together to join the ranks of a dammed protest group the likes of which are seldom seen in these parts, they would be outnumbered and separate in almost every way higher education students could be. Together, relying on each other they hoped to save the current funding plan, lord help the sorry sack of meat who stood in the way of those students.
Because the population of Perth is so small if you plan to hold any protest in the city worth its salt there’s only one playing field where you can pull it off: Forest place. Forest place is like our very own little Tiananmen Square, an expanse of stone and concrete wedged between Myers, the train station, a few surf shops and a bank.
I’d best rumble on down there to check out what was happening; the protest was due to start in one hour and If Rupert Murdoch was going to be sending in his right winged flying monkeys you could be sure someone had to be there to protect Dorothy, Tin man, and represent alternative journalism.
I knew what I expected to find at this protest: the same free spirited clown posse who frequent other rallies in Perth. Not really hippies, (the real hippies were long gone with the rest of the flower power movement, exiled to Byron bay). Rather I expected to run into students, socialists and members of the greens party. What the freak movement had spent forty very odd years and the fall of communism evolving into.
First up you've got your socialists, who don’t really seem to play the political game. I mean they don’t really make an effort to appear mainstream and if you want to succeed in democracy you need to appeal to the majority. If you look at the socialist posters the leader isn't wearing a suite like the other major party leaders. He's dressed in a smart casual shirt and looks like he just stepped into a parent teacher night at a fairly well off primary school. (He’s not clean shaven either, which is somewhat uncommon in our society especially in a community leader.)
During the 1970s in America, the klu klux klan realised it had to radically change its negative image if it wanted to survive. Many chapters abandoned the creepy white hoods, started sponsoring local picnics, and engaging in community service. I believe something like this is the only way the socialist movement can survive- by changing the way the majority of Australians see them, they may have great ideas, but at the moment they just look like student radicals.
Of course you do have the idealistic students at these events, (the ones who might just “change the world”). This group might include members of the Australian Sex party, and occasionally some kook behind a stand who tells anyone listening that Prince Charles is a sociopath bent on the destruction of western civilisation. The most influential group at these events would have to be the Greens party.
It might be said that the Greens have an image of riding the borderland between mainstream politics and more radical environmentalists. Having quite a bit more power in Australia than they do in other countries, seats in the senate and ties to the labor party, they play the political game better than a lot of environmentalist groups.They have influence to show for it.
Despite this however there exists an unfortunate stereotype that the Greens will be the first vote of choice for pot smoking hippies, many of the more conservative Australians simply do not see them as a serious voting option.
Misspelt Banner Blowing In The Wind
It's Coming, It's Coming
When I got to Forrest place at 1.20 the square was as empty, save for a band on the stage tuning instruments.
“Hey, what’s gives, boyo? The protest was due to start 20 minutes ago.”
“They’ve gone for a walk around the block” one of the wild man techies replied, “they’ll fill up this place and we’ll get the concert going. Lordy lou, we must have about 120 protesters.”
120 university students from different schools, putting aside factional differences, squabbling and years of ugly rivalries to fight for the future of education funding, therein lay something beautiful, something not commonly witnessed.
You heard the noise before you saw them. A wave of youth flowing down towards Forrest place. You could almost see the momentum as they swarmed into the square. Like water that adapts to every obstacle and terrain, they jumped over benches, poured down paths, flowed in the spaces between bins and bollards, filling every gap, until at last in a crescendo of movement they pooled like a swirling mass in front of the stage, lapping against the speakers.
Then they stopped chanting and started to sing, it was a butchery of "oh when the saints."
"No, we won't pay, no we won't pay,
no we won't pay no we won't pay."
As well as I can remember it was just those lyrics repeated to the saints tune.
Anita Creasey is certainly a noteworthy person of interest at this point in the story. She seemed perfectly at ease with the reigns of leadership in her hands and the responsibility of the group on her shoulders, so it seemed like a good idea to ask this future social worker a few questions.
Anita is president of the student union's west Australian branch, a third year UWA student and a single mother of a 6 year old.
Anita explained to me that centre link pays some university student a thousand dollars welfare at the start of each semester, which helps buy school books, food and other essentials, after these reforms come in: that thousand dollars will be made a loan, meaning students will have to pay it back to the government, thus students will graduate with "up to 37% more debt.”
“The point needs to be made that the cuts are unnecessary.” says Anita, who is not against the primary school funding increase in itself, and went on to say that the money to fund the primary school system budget increase could be found by raising the mining tax or resettling refugees in cheaper ways than the government’s current “pacific solution.”
“The work force will be subpar because of the cuts” said Anita, “we need to invest more in education. "I shed a tear at refugee rallies, education cuts don’t have emotional impact on people, it’s not emotive but it’s important.”
Anita explained to me that government education funding had been dwindling since the Howard years. 2 billion dollars however, was enough of an “overt attack” that it gave the student community “groundswell” to launch more powerful protests and demonstrations.“2 billion dollars is too big to be ignored.”
Anita agreed to let me publish a photo of her holding a protest flag, but it was pretty obvious she wasn't 100% comfortable with the idea so we have refrained from publishing her photo.
Foot Soldiers Of The System
I left Anita and tried to spot some plain clothed police officers monitoring the crowd. This demonstration was either too small or the government was getting smarter and better at hiding them.
I was taught my police spotting skills by a shady duffer who approached me at one protest and pointed out the plain clothed cops. He was openly rude to a few of them.
“So are you a sort of fly in their ointment?” I had asked this mysterious character.
“Nah, I’m more of a mosquito.”
The Mosquito taught me that plain clothed officers can be pitifully easy to pick out. I only met him once, then he slipped back into the mist, but I got the sense that what he was teaching me was so altruistic and for my own good; by which I mean It was pretty obvious he didn't actually have to be there, but he'd come to the protest for the good of other people. A true hero, And just as soon as he had come, he was gone.
You can usually spot the plain clothed cops through a few simple methods:
1) The first thing to remember is where to look. If you are looking for them you have to go where they’ll be, and if a plain clothed officer’s job is to observe people in a crowd he’s not going to be watching from a distance, he’s going to be in the crowd.
2) A lot of them are concealing ear communication devices.Look for men and women holding magazines up against their heads. Now who does that out of habit? Why would you carry a magazine up there? Wouldn't it tire out your arm? I would think the natural position would be to hold the magazine by your side. How do those people react if you accidentally bump them, or ask them to do something that would involve them lowering their hands, like asking for the time.
3) Often the cars used by government officials have different colored number plates and sometimes extra ariels that are designed not to be noticed, they look little black square lumps of plastic on the boot.
4) The really lazy ones will be going back and forth like yoyos to the police officers in regular uniform, saying a few words and shrinking back into the crowd over and over again. You can tell from the body language they aren't making civilian complaints to the police, in fact they look chummy, like they’re talking to somebody they've known for a while.
5) Look for inconsistencies, like the man who stands in a crowd of protesters but doesn’t participate because he seems to be watching everyone else around him. Are those expensive shoes consistent with that old woman’s dilapidated jeans and ripped up jacket?
The paper that man is holding is the Fremantle Herald. This is Perth central so it’s not sold nearby. It’s only sold on the weekend and this is a weekday, so he’s had that paper for a while. This means he brought an out dated paper from a few suburbs away to an event where nobody usually reads, now why would he do that? Maybe he's using it to conceal something.
Sarah The Politician
I see her standing in front of the stage, a twenty year old law and politics student at UWA.The Greens candidate for the seat of Pearce with this strange ability to convince you that Australia can reach 100% renewable energy before mid-century.
Sarah Nielsen Harvey grew up in a small wheat belt town during the Clinton years, and the Afghan war. As a teenager she loved watching Kerry O'Brien and the chasers, she saw her home ravaged by drought and was inspired by Bob Brown, but it would be climate change and the federal government’s inactivity towards Kyoto that pushed her to step into politics.
Pearce is a semi-rural suburban area, meaning the state of the natural environment is especially important to the locals. Pearce is Controlled by Liberals MP Judi Moylan.
Sarah tells me the liberals are open to selling agricultural land to the foreign investors; her followers want to put Australian farmers first and will fight this action to the bitter end, tooth and nail on behalf of the locals.
"Politics should be about integrity, not the pursuit of power for its own sake" She tells me, "Scott Ludlam is on par with Bob (Brown), he will stand up for all of us and he is truly a fantastic person to be working with. He is also one of the only people standing in between Tony Abbott having full control of both houses of parliament and Australia having a balanced and independent senate."
Nielsen Harvey has a zero tolerance policy on GMO, and would like to see a full moratorium instated.
“I believe in a fairer education system, one that caters more to the individual.”
“Oh, like that Mr Miyagi line from the karate kid movie “there are no bad students, only bad teachers?”
She gives me a sceptical look.
Basically the point I got from Sarah was that smaller classes work better because the teachers have more time to show the students more attention. Cutting 2 billion from the budget means less teachers can be employed so the classes have to be bigger, giving the teacher less time to focus on needs of the individual. Do you get that?
Jess McLeod is a third year nursing student, bastion of leadership and current president of the Curtin university student guild, she gave some insight in to where this fight is heading in the long run.
Jess explained to me that there had been a decline in the quality of education in recent years, “and it’s nothing to do with the students who are coming to the university," she assured me "it’s nothing to do with the skills or motivation of the staff who teach, but actually to do with the fact that there are not enough resources…the declining quality is a product of there not being enough funding for higher ed.”
“But how can this end?” I asked, I wanted to know if this was actually a battle the guilds could win, what would the endgame be?
“Well as the old union saying goes ""if you don’t fight you lose."”
“So do you actually think you can win? Or are you just here to make a point? Can we go back to how it was before Howard cut the 6 billion, or is there no going back?”
“It’ll be an almighty struggle to actually make serious wins for students, but if we just sit back and let it get worse and worse that’ll make it even harder.”
“And if we continue down this path? What’s the worst case scenario in say, 20 years?”
“Incredibly over crowded classes, there will not be a variety of courses on offer, highly generics courses; we won’t have much time with academic staff."
It seemed like the little hope that did exist lay at the end of path cobbled by the stones of disappointment, dissent, more demonstrations and determination.
I’ll wrap un the article with these words: when a protest crowd becomes ugly it’s a fairly good microcosm of human society, you’ll find the people at the front of the crowd who crash against the police riot shields and take the impact are actually being pushed by the folk a few meters behind them.
Likewise in many other fights and armed conflicts- the men’s men, the guys who just want to work off some aggression or the insecure people who have something to prove usually get pushed from behind and manipulated by the calculating psychopaths. Who do you think comes off best? It sure isn’t the guys on the front line.
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